After meeting US president Donald Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham said Washington will be “in a pause situation” in northern Syria, adding complexity to the president's plan of a complete withdrawal.
Responding to the longstanding concerns of Turkey, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria earlier this month, but a senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham added a twist on Sunday, saying the pull-out would not happen anytime soon.
"I think we are in a pause situation, where we’re re-evaluating what’s the best way to achieve the president’s objective of having people pay more and do more,” said Graham, after a meeting with Trump on December 30.
From Graham's comment, it became certain that Trump is facing internal pressure from both the US Congress and military leaders.
Graham previously criticised US support to the YPG and PYD in northern Syria, even questioning the country's military establishment for siding with groups that are affiliated to the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation not only by Ankara but also by the US.
However, now he is apparently now much more concerned over the fate of the YPG, despite previously referring to what he called Turkey’s “legitimate concerns" about the group, whose parent organisation, the PKK, has launched a four-decade-long armed campaign against the Turkish state.
After Sunday's meeting with Trump, Graham's stance against the troop withdrawal appeared to have changed to some extent. Instead of resisting a time-bound withdrawal, he said the pullout will ”slow down" and be completed “in a smart way”.
Before the meeting, Graham had indicated that he would talk to the president to change his withdrawal decision, citing several crucial issues for the US presence in northern Syria, ranging from the prevention of any Daesh comeback to Iran’s increasing influence over the Assad regime, which has been a fundamental issue for Israel since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.
But after the meeting, Graham, a southern politician who tries to fill the gap left by the late legendary US Senator John McCain, the influential politician appeared to be persuaded by Trump on the policy change vis-a-vis Syria.
“We had a great lunch. We talked about Syria. He told me some things I didn’t know that made me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria,” Graham told the press.
Graham had previously advocated that Turkey’s security concerns should be properly addressed. During a TRT World interview in July, he said: “Turkish government concerns about the YPG are legitimate in my mind. They have been partnered with the US, fighting ISIS (Daesh). They have a long record that makes Turkey very nervous.”
Graham added: “We are going to deal with the legitimate concerns of YPG presence in Syria that may threaten Turkey.”
After his meeting with Trump, he made a bold assertion, pleading on behalf of the YPG and its affiliates. He explicitly said since the US “got the Kurds” on its side in the fight against Daesh, Americans “need to be concerned about” them, identifying the YPG with the larger Kurdish community. Turkey and other Kurdish political groups maintain that the PKK and its linked groups do not represent all Kurds.
“Buffer zone” between Turkey and YPG
Graham also appeared to tie his Kurdish concern with Turkey’s possible upcoming cross-border operation to the YPG-held regions across its border. Ankara has delayed its operation for some time following the Trump announcement of the US withdrawal.
“They [the Kurds] stepped out nobody else would. He [Trump] is very aware of that problem. He’s going to be talking with Turkey, ensuring about Turkey that they would have a buffer zone they need, giving their concerns about YPG,” Graham said, using somewhat confusing terminology.
Graham’s reference to a possible “buffer zone” between Turkey and the YPG could potentially trigger another political crisis between the two NATO allies if it is considered seriously by Washington. Despite a recent Erdogan-Trump rapprochement on the status of northern Syria, the trust issue between the two countries has not yet been fully resolved.
Turkey has a long list of concerns regarding the US’s Syria policy, ranging from building observatory posts across the Turkish border to training more than 30,000 militants under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG.
In the past, when Turkey questioned US intentions on its initiatives with the YPG, Washington always maintained it was not working against Ankara’s interests. For example, the Pentagon says it is building the observatory posts to address Turkey’s border security concerns.
"It is clear that the purpose of US observation points is not to protect our country from terrorists but to protect terrorists from Turkey," Erdogan said in a speech this month.
Now Graham’s new talk on a “buffer zone,” which could mean increasing the longevity of the YPG in northern Syria, is likely to disappoint Turkey. Any American effort to protect the YPG in Syria is not in line with Ankara's security interests.
“By stalling Turkey, the US demonstrates to Turkey that [it plans] to have a permanent presence there,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkish national intelligence agency, in a previous interview with TRT World.
Graham has further raised concerns in Ankara, mentioning a war scenario between Turkey and the Kurds. “The last thing in the world we want is a war between Turkey and the Kurds that takes pressure off ISIS (Daesh),” Graham said.
Later on his Twitter account, he summed up his meeting with Trump, linking any American withdrawal with three main conditions, one of which is “Our Kurdish allies are protected”. When referring to the Kurdish allies, he likely means the YPG, as Washington considers the group its ally in Syria.
The President will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will be done in a fashion to ensure:— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 30, 2018
1) ISIS is permanently destroyed.
2) Iran doesn’t fill in the back end, and
3) our Kurdish allies are protected.
“Just as ISIS does not represent Muslims, PKK does not represent Kurds in Syria or elsewhere,” Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for the Turkish presidency, wrote on Twitter in a reply to Graham, demonstrating Ankara’s anger toward the Graham comments.
Dear @LindseyGrahamSC You know and have stated publicly more than anyone else the direct link between the terrorist PKK and its Syria branches PYD & YPG. Terrorists cannot be your allies. Just as ISIS doesn’t represent Muslims, PKK doesn’t represent Kurds in Syria or elsewhere. https://t.co/ZVVXw5CZe0— Ibrahim Kalin (@ikalin1) December 31, 2018
Worse still for Ankara, Graham’s identification of the YPG with the Kurds could also be the result of a deliberate policy towards both the YPG and the PKK. Washington has denied any links between the YPG and the PKK to date, despite concrete evidence of the ties.
“YPG is one of the [Western] means that are used to restore the PKK a legitimate legal status,” said Ones. Through the YPG experience, the Western bloc apparently aims to change the PKK to create a legitimate outfit, saying that the group is not a terrorist organisation anymore, according to Ones.
Despite the recent Trump-Erdogan Syria understanding, Ankara also keeps working with the Russians, a rival of the US, on the northern Syria front to prevent the creation of a YPG-dominated region. In a recent meeting between the top diplomats of both countries, Moscow and Ankara have emphasised the importance of Syria’s sovereignty and integrity.